BHP said the new aluminium and nickel customer sector group, to include all its current nickel and aluminium assets, would be based in Perth, Australia, under the leadership of Glenn Kellow, currently president of stainless steel materials.

Together, BHP's stainless steel materials and aluminium units made an underlying operating loss of $66M at the half-year to the end of December, compared to BHP's underlying operating profit of $15.7bn.

The division will also include Cerro Matoso in Colombia, Mozal in Mozambique, Hillside and Bayside in South Africa and two non-operated joint ventures, Alumar and Mineracao Rio do Norte in Brazil.

"Despite the current challenges, BHP Billiton is committed to aluminium and nickel as commodities that may benefit from later phases of economic development in the emerging economies," BHP's chief executive for aluminium, nickel and corporate development, Alberto Calderon, said.

"However, individually, Aluminium and Nickel are small divisions relative to the other businesses in BHP Billiton," he said, adding the new unit would provide "appropriate scale".